Last exit to Brooklyn loveless passion
A sad book about sad and lonely people who are incapable of love, and look for it in all the wrong places.
I first read it nearly 50 years ago, and found it rather depressing. Back then I was a fan of Beat Generation literature, and it was lent to me by a fellow student who was also a fan, and thought it was of the same or similar genre, but it wasn’t really.
It was listed in The Modern Library as one of the 200 best novels in English written in the second half of the 20th century, so I thought it might be worth re-reading, and when I found a copy in the library I took it out.
The Modern Library description begins, “This is written with a freedom and flow and use of vernacular and voice that makes it hugely readable.” After starting it, I found that its style made it hugely unreadable, and went on to Surprised by joy instead. Hubert Selby clearly does not believe in the apostrophe, and used this book in a one-man crusade for its abolition. I found that this made the book all but unreadable, and kept having to go back and reread a sentence to puzzle out its meaning.
Eventually I returned to it, thinking that if I had managed to read it once, I could manage to do so again, and perhaps one would get used to the style after a while, and stop trying to work out whether “were” in a particular context actually meant “we’re”. And so, after about 30 pages or so, it began to flow more easily, and Selby’s idiosyncracies of style became less obtrusive.
The book is a series of narratives about a group of people, most of whom form the clientele of an all-night diner they call the Greeks. After a while it becomes clear that there is only one Greek, called Alex, who doesn’t come into the story much. One of the favourite occupations of the characters is beating up and robbing soldiers and sailors, which places the action in the period immediately after the Second World War, though the book was actually published in 1964. Another character is proud of his Cadillac with big tail fins, which places it around 1958-1960, so it’s (its) never quite clear whether it is set in the 1940s or the 1960s.
Some characters, like the “hip queer” Georgette, long for love, and Georgette hopes for the love of Vinnie, whose main claim to fame is that he knows someone who was shot dead by the police. Vinnie, however, seems quite incapable of love, and it goes downhill from there.
There is Tralala the whore who tries to exploit soldiers and sailors for greed, but ends up being exploited by everyone, in a most horrific way. Her fate is one of the few things I remembered vividly from my first reading of the book. Some of her clients are looking to her for love, but, like Vinnie, she seems incapable of love, and despises them for it.
There is Harry Black, a union organiser, who hates his wife, his child, his boss, and his fellow-workers. He organises a strike, which benefits no one, but proceeds from and feeds Harry’s misanthropy, though calling it misanthropy is perhaps dignifying it too much by implying that it is an organized philosophy of life. Harry’s outlook and behaviour, like that of most of the other characters, is controlled by the passions.
In Orthodox ascetic theology the passions are things that Christians try to bring under control and subdue. The essence of the passions is that they are things that we passively undergo. We suffer the passions, and the passions control us. Growth in the Christian life consists in bringing the passions under control, and subduing them. The goal is dispassion (apatheia) and union with God (Theosis). The characters in the book, however, are pathetic, in every sense of the word.
We discussed Last exit to Brooklyn a little at our monthly literary coffee klatsch. The conversation was mainly about the differences between the novels of Charles Williams on the one hand, and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the other. Lewis and Tolkien locate their fantasy stories in other worlds, whereas in Williams the otherness intrudes into this world, to the delight of some and the discomfort of others. I said that Last exit to Brooklyn was just the opposite of Williams, and almost entirely secular. There is no other world. There is only this one, in all its sordidness, lovelessness and violence. One or two characters have vague longinss for love, but there is nothing of the joy that characterised the Sehnsucht that C.S. Lewis describes; it is rather characterised by bitterness and disappointment.
Right towards the end there is just the hint of another world, but it fails to make an impact on the domestic violence, child abuse, crime, drug addiction and loveless sex of the surrounding flats in the housing estate. The sounds of a prayer meeting in one of the flats are incomprehensible to the neighbours, while on Sunday morning distant church bells ring, but not loud enough to disturb the hangovers of most of the inhabitants.